SARAH CORTEZ – Award-Winning Author and Law Enforcement Veteran

ATSNStop the ThreatChuck Thompson

Sarah’s latest crime fiction thriller is The Carlucci Betrayal.

Here is a glimpse into Sarah’s award-winning career:

Sarah Cortez, a Councilor of the Texas Institute of Letters, Fellow of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, and Fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has poems, essays, book reviews, and short stories anthologized and published in journals, such as Texas Monthly, Rattle, The Sun, Pennsylvania English, Texas Review, Louisiana Literature, The Midwest Quarterly, Southwestern American Literature. Winner of the PEN Texas Literary Award, her debut poetry collection is How to Undress a Cop. Her books have placed as finalists in many contests, such as the Writers’ League of Texas Awards, Los Angeles Book Festival Awards, and the PEN Southwest Poetry Awards Latino Book Awards, Border Region Librarians Association Award, Press Women of Texas Editing Award. She has been both a Houston and Texas finalist for poet laureate; she is a law enforcement veteran of 28 years. Her memoir entitled Tired, Hungry, Standing in One Spot for Twelve Hours: Essential Cop Essays brings the reader into the patrol car as it reveals America’s most dangerous profession.

The Carlucci Betrayal takes readers deep into the Mississippi Delta during Prohibition to witness the founding of a criminal empire, and not since The Godfather has a Mafia family captivated readers the way the Carlucci brothers do in Robert Wilkins’ and Sarah Cortez’s rollicking novel of love, lust, and naked ambition.

Michael Bracken  – Anthony Award-nominated editor of The Eyes of Texas

 Genres in Which I Write: I write in more than one genre, and I love seeing how the interaction of skill and intention translates and doesn’t translate across genres.

I began as a literary fiction writer, then to poetry, then to memoir. At this point, I think I’ve been published in almost all popular and literary genres and subgenres. I love all kinds of writing and edit all genres.

Writing Process: In terms of my writing process, I don’t have much leeway to choose a particular set of locations or circumstances to write. As a full-time professional writer/editor, I write when and where I can. I always seem to have deadlines breathing down my neck, whether for writing or editing. I am also an editor for a large international Catholic online journal of the arts. Those deadlines keep me very busy. www.catholicartstoday

First Publication: My first book came out within less than three years of beginning to write poetry. I now have 14 books—all traditionally published. For quite a few years, I had one or two books published per year. I have been very fortunate to work with publishers who really believed in my book projects.

Characters: In the popular genre of crime fiction, there are usually two strong-willed characters: the criminal and the sleuth. They must be fairly evenly matched in order to have a drawn-out conflict that is sufficiently interesting for a reader to read the entire novel.

The process of creating a 3-D character, particularly a main character is involved and mysterious. Tomes have been written about it. Curiously enough, it is the one critically important step that most fiction writers, particularly beginning fiction writers, don’t spend enough time doing. All the hours of research, imagining, taking notes, thinking through personality and choices, and personal history of the character pay off. Yet, most fiction writers either skip this step or do it quickly—a fatal mistake to both plot and the possibility of writing a book that readers enjoy.

Writing Characters of the Opposite Sex: Due to police work and my corporate career before policing, most of my life has been spent working with men. I do not find it a particular challenge to write from a male’s POV. In fact, most of my literary and popular fiction is written in a male’s POV.

Do You Base Characters on Real People? As a freelance editor who has been privileged to work with many writers, I think that basing a fictional character on a real person is an absolute no-no. Fiction that does this results in erratic character motivation and is often boring. Characters must be free to act according to the psychological and emotional dimensions based on the imagined history and personality that the writer has given them. So, you can see from this line of thought that I never base my characters on real people and certainly never on myself.

How To Raise the Stakes for Characters? Especially in popular fiction, but also to a lesser degree in literary fiction, the author’s “job” is to apply stress on the main character. These stresses of circumstance create conflict, and conflict creates plot. The way the stress is applied to each character will be different since each character has a different personality and history.

Does a Protagonist Ever Disappoint You? As an author, I am not thinking about my reactions to characters in a book. I am always thinking, however, about what the scene needs to be of interest to a reader. Sometimes a protagonist needs to fail, whether that failure is of his choice or imposed on him. If the writer is writing a protagonist that changes throughout the book, the protagonist will make mistakes. Some characters, like James Bond, do not change over the course of a book. But even this type of character does experience failure of action and choices.

vintage Italian mafia gangster in 1930 in New York

What Kind of Research Do You Do? I research what I need to research. Sometimes that involves an entire era with its cultural artifacts of music, dance, clothes, attitudes, disasters, politics, etc. Sometimes research is very specifically related to a particular scene. For instance, in The Carlucci Betrayal, I had to find out how a young male below the age of military service would get to Europe in 1938 to volunteer to fight against Hitler. Since 1938 was before the U.S. declared war, I had to see which avenues were open to this young man. This only affected a couple of sentences in a phone conversation between two main characters, but it had to be historically accurate.

Also, for The Carlucci Betrayal, I had to research Mississippi law regarding homicide and manslaughter in the late 1920s for a courtroom scene and for the lawyer’s arguments to be accurately based on the law.

A Writer You Admire: I greatly admire Megan Abbott, a wonderful noir writer. She successfully combines what’s best about crime fiction with exquisitely styled prose. She is so successful because so few writers write with her precision and energy in such gorgeous prose. My favorite title of hers is Bury Me Deep.

Advice for New Writers: I’ll pass along some wise advice from a professional saxophone musician: don’t choose anything but your horn. In other words, writing demands a serious commitment to practice and learning. When the others meet their friends to go bowling or drink at the bars, you must be reading, learning, revising, drafting, studying, etc. If you’re going to be a good (highly skilled) writer, then writing isn’t a hobby. It is your job.

Anything Else You’d Like to Mention: Getting to work on The Carlucci Betrayal was tremendously hard work and also tremendous fun! I’ve always wanted to write Mafia-era fiction. This gave me an opportunity to research plus create three-dimensional characters that acted according to a different era’s pressures in a society that was both more constricted and more free-wheeling than today’s.

I also relished my research into Mafia fashion. Not only for the men but for the women. Holsters, spare magazines, stilettos, razors, cigarette lighters, etc. Types and calibers of guns. Several PWSA members helped me out with these questions. For me, becoming conversant with places of concealment, fashions for men and women, mobsters on different coasts, and what they wore—fascinating! It was a delicious peek into the psychology and practicality of why the mobsters and their ladies wore what they wore.

Readers can contact me at: cortez.sarah@gmail.com or at carluccibetrayal@gmail.com

Our website,  carluccibetrayal.com – Search Results | Facebook, also has a “Contact Me” button.

Phone: 713-331-9342

I am available for virtual book readings and presentations on Mafia Fashion.

Follow us on Facebook at   The Carlucci Betrayal | Facebook

 

 

5 Comments

  1. John Schembra

    Great post Sarah. Interesting to
    Learn other author’s writing process, and how they plan/organize their characters and plots. Best of luck with your new book!

    Reply
  2. John G. Bluck

    I like your comments about building strong characters. I look forward to reading your books!

    Reply
  3. Marilyn Meredith

    Great post, Sarah, with so many valuable tips. I was so glad to see at the recent PSWA conference and catch up with you some. Hope you’ll come again soon.

    Reply
  4. Holli Castillo

    Sarah, loved learning about your writing process. I find it more difficult to write from the male perspective so I envy your ability to do it so easily. I also find the idea of mafia fashion fascinating. Your thorough research is evident in your work as it always rings authentic.

    Reply
  5. Michael A. Black

    Hi, Sarah. Great advice about writing and the dedication to learning one’s craft. I loved the saxophone allusion. Your new one sounds interesting. I’ll have to check it out. I remember when you were researching the holsters and such. Good luck and stay strong.

    Reply

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LYNN HESSE – Come Visit as this Author Shares Her Story

Lynn Hesse won the 2015 First Place Winner, Oak Tree Press, Cop Tales, for her mystery, Well of Rage. Her novel Another Kind of Hero was a finalist for the 2018 Silver Falchion Award and won the International Readers’ Chill Award in 2021. Her short story “Jewel’s Hell” was published September 2019 in Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology by Level Best Books and edited by Elizabeth Zelvin.

Her short story about a domestic homicide, “Murder: Food For Thought,” published in the anthology Double Lives, Reinvention & Those We Leave Behind, 2009 by Wising Up Press, was adapted in the play, We Hunt Our Young, produced at Emory University Field Showcase and Core Studio Luncheon Time Series, 2011. Excerpts from the play “Unacceptable Truths” were performed on the Atlanta BeltLine in 2013.

An interview concerning Lynn’s role as a police officer, “Blue Steel,” is in The Women’s Studies Archives, The Second Feminist Movement, Georgia State University. She performs in several dance and theatrical troupes in Atlanta, Georgia.

 Appreciation for Other Writers: I owe Public Safety Writers Association, PSWA, gratitude, and a hearty thank you for mentoring writers. Let me tell you why. My latest endeavor is an audiobook release based on my first novel, Well of Rage, and, of course, the marketing of it.

Recruit Carly Redmund is accused of mishandling evidence by her white-supremacist training officer and must solve the cold case murder of an African-American teenager whose bones and high school ring are found in an abandoned well in Mobile, Alabama.

During the 2016 PSWA conference in Las Vegas, I was given a suggestion by Lorna Collins, another PSWA member, to submit to Desert Breeze Publishing concerning my traditional mystery Another Kind of Hero. They published my novella.

A casket full of drugs and money found at the Pick’n Pay in Forsyth, Georgia, plus a ghost, put two contentious sisters and an uncover DEA agent in jeopardy.) Lorna also edited this novella, a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award at the 2017 Killer Nashville Conference, and won the International Readers’ Chill Award in 2021.

What new skills have you learned recently? I finished the audio book’s final proofing for Well of Rage and came away with several valuable lessons. For instance, most tags “he said” or “she said” necessary in a regular book are distracting while listening to an audiobook. It makes me aware of cutting out as many tags as possible in my regular writing and give the character an action or gesture to convey who is speaking. If there are only two characters in a scene conveying pertinent dialogue, tags should be minimal. I’m considering going back to Vellum to edit the eBook. Again.

Next time I will pick a southerner to read my books. Conveying how a southern drawl should sound by email is frustrating. I’m acutely aware of how I pronounce the words either and route. I’ll probably pick a woman to read my upcoming novels with female protagonists. The professional male reader I chose for Well of Rage did a good job; however, I missed hearing some version of the female voices I have in my head.

I found several paragraphs left out during the first proofing process, and some random scenes sounded robotic. When I replayed the audio during the last proofing process, it had vanished, but it took patience and effort on my part.

If you are interested in helping me reach my goal of testing Amazon’s algorithms for bestselling books, please preorder/buy the audible book for Well of Rage and then post a review. https://www.amazon.com/Lynn-Hesse/e/B01LKPRAZQ

 

 

What manuscript have you completed this year? Gritty stories, sometimes with a bit of jaded humor, pour out of me. If statistics prove anything, female crime writers are traditionally published less often than male ones, but rejection goes with the territory. If I’m not offered a traditional contract soon, I’ll self-publish the sequel to my first novel, A Matter of Respect, the first of next year.”

In Mobile, Alabama, Officer Carly Redmond witnesses a robbery in progress and makes an off-duty arrest of a mentally ill man, Joshua Randall, that leads to the death of a fellow officer by the suspect in the jail’s intake sally port. During interrogation by her department’s Internal Affairs and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, Carly learns the jail’s video of Joshua murdering the officer with a knife is missing, and the radio printout is altered. She is sure she patted down Joshua and bagged the switchblade, but “the powers that be” accuse her of negligence.

 What are you in the midst of publishing? I am in the process of self-publishing Stranded in Atlanta, a novella about a trio of con artists. They are stuck in Atlanta without funds when the oldest member has a heart attack and dies. Clara Shannesy Blyth and her adopted Uncle Roman are crushed at their mentor’s death. Still, Clara must take over the reins of the duo and pull off a risky art heist of an Edward Hopper painting with a cut-throat team. She falls in love for the first time at twenty-seven with Hernando and realizes too late he is the Hopper painting’s forger, and his brother is the man trying to kill her.

Stranded in Atlanta took me deep into research about the Roma culture and their displacement into ghettos throughout European history. My studies about the Roma culture and their myths are ongoing. However, Julie Baggenstoss—a flamingo dancer and academic in matters concerning the marginalized Roma culture and the important influences of their people—was one of my six beta readers and provided research materials for me. Also, my Spanish daughter-in-law at the time added her insights. Darija Pichanick, the SinC President for the Atlanta Chapter, provided details about Croatian food, geographic traveling timetables, and attitudes toward foreign guests. This eye-opening research drove me to develop what I hope is a likable anti-hero character as my protagonist.

When you aren’t writing crime novels, do you write in other genres or styles? Yes, I branched out during the pandemic and wrote a short science fiction piece to entertain my teenage grandson. It has turned into a YA novel-in-progress called “Grams and Grandson Teddy, the A.I. Private-Eye Detective.” Recently, I was informed my short story “Bitter Love” will be in the fall issue of Crimeucopia by Murderous Ink Press.

Have you ever judged a writing contest? I was honored to judge a local writing contest, and now I have empathy for editors who read countless submissions.

You may contact me at:

https://www.lynnhesse.com

facebook.com/lynn_hesse2

twitter.com/lynnhesseauthor

To buy my books https://www.amazon.com/Lynn-Hesse/e/B01LKPRAZQ

 

12 Comments

  1. Lynn Hesse

    Thanks, Marilyn,
    It would be lovely to see you again. The plane ride to Las Vegas is a pricey trip for me, but I appreciate PSWA.

    Reply
  2. Marilyn Meredith

    Hi, Lynn, so excited to hear about your endeavors. PSWA has helped me in so many ways. Would love to see you again.

    Reply
    • lynn hesse

      Thanks you, Lynn. I was named after my paternal grandfather, a Pentecostal preacher. Congrats on your new novel published by Level Best Books.

      Reply
  3. Lynn Hesse

    Thank you George for hosting my story on your blog.

    Reply
  4. Lynn Hesse

    Thanks, Vicki,
    FYI: My husband has 6 feral cats. You want one?

    Reply
  5. Vicki Batman

    very nice interview and good to learn more about you

    Reply
  6. Michael A. Black

    Great to hear you’ve got so many projects rolling, Lynn and thanks for mentioning the PSWA. I’ve always been fascinated by the regional accents of our country as well, and I know what you mean about hearing your work read by someone whose accent is not the same as your character’s. Keep up your fantastic research and writing pace and best of luck to you.

    Reply
    • Lynn Hesse

      Hi, Mike,
      Thank you. I feel like a slacker compare to you and others who published multiple books a year.

      Reply
    • lynn hesse

      Thank you, Mike. I feel like a slacker compared you and others who produced multiple books a year.

      Reply

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MARK COGGINS – See What Has to Say About Writing Successful Crime Fiction

Mark Coggins was born in the Four Corners region of New Mexico and is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation. His work has been nominated for the Shamus and the Barry crime fiction awards and selected for best of the year lists compiled by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Detroit Free Press, and Amazon.com.

 

THE DEAD BEAT SCROLL – Private investigator August Riordan’s quest to avenge the death of his old partner drops him in the missing person case his partner was working when he died. An alluring young woman named Angelina is looking for her half-sister, but what Riordan finds instead is a murderous polyamorous family intent on claiming a previously unknown manuscript from dead Beat writer Jack Kerouac.

What brought you to writing? I composed my first published short story, “There’s No Such Thing as Private Eyes,” in the late ’70s for a creative writing class at Stanford University taught by Ron Hansen. This was shortly after I’d learned about Raymond Chandler and his distinctive writing style in another class, that one taught by Tobias Wolff. I was all of 19 years old when I typed out the original draft on my Smith-Corona portable, but it was eventually published in the mid-1980s in a revival of the famous Black Mask magazine, where Hammett and Chandler got their start.

In addition to being my first appearance in print, the tale also introduces my series character, San Francisco private eye August Riordan.

Tell us about your writing process: I maintain a research folder on my computer for each novel I write. In it goes digital photographs, Word and PDF files, links to web pages, etc.—anything that can be stored on disk. I also have a small notebook in which I write a variety of things, including location descriptions, snatches of dialog, plot ideas, and similes. The dialog can be imagined or something I’ve overheard.

Of course, the reason I have the notebook is to draw upon the entries when I’m writing. If I decide to use an item from the notebook, I put a tick mark beside it, so I know I’ve already put it in a novel. But even when I don’t select something I can use directly, I find thumbing through the notebook can be helpful, especially when I’m suffering from writer’s block. Somehow, just reading through everything I’ve jotted down can be inspirational, and I usually come up with an idea to get me back on track again.

Do you ever kill a popular character? If so, what happens to your story? Yes, in The Dead Beat Scroll, I killed a character named Chris Duckworth. (This isn’t a spoiler since the book begins with news of Duckworth’s death.) Duckworth was Riordan’s sidekick for five of the seven books. Many readers found his personality and the byplay between Riordan and him to be one of the most entertaining aspects of the novels. Although Riordan and Duckworth are estranged at the time of Duckworth’s death, I hope Riordan’s regard for Duckworth and the real grief he experiences come across in the book. I found the process of writing the final scene in the novel—which is a celebration of life for Duckworth—to be particularly poignant. I hope some of that poignancy is transmitted in the text.

What kind of research do you do? The first research I do is on Bay Area locations, where most of my books take place. I usually walk around a neighborhood I’m going to set a scene in, taking both pictures and notes that I use to jog my memory when I get to the actual writing.

I also do research about the theme or social issue I’m using to drive the plot. For instance, in my novel Runoff, I researched electronic voting and the possibility of defeating the security of voting machines to rig an election. To do that research, I interviewed computer science experts on the topic and talked with poll workers who had an “on the ground” understanding of how the machines are used in a precinct.

For my novel Candy from Strangers, which was about cam girls, I interviewed a young woman who has a website where she solicits anonymous gifts.

Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? My settings can probably best be described as hyper-real. I try very hard to set every scene in a real location—often in San Francisco—and many of my books feature black and white photographs of those locales.

Do you have any advice for new writers? I can’t emphasize enough the importance of critique groups. In addition to providing camaraderie and support, they give you feedback, encourage you to write to deadlines. Reading other writers’ work with an eye towards making suggestions for improvement helps me better understand what does and doesn’t work in fiction. Good writers read a lot, and even better writers read a lot and analyze what they are reading.

 

Website: https://www.markcoggins.com/

Twitter: @Mark_Coggins

The Dead Beat Scroll – https://www.amazon.com/Dead-Beat-Scroll-August-Riordan/dp/1643960318

Podcast (where I do serial readings of some of my books) – https://riordansdesk.buzzsprout.com/

 

4 Comments

  1. Mary Hagen

    Enjoyed your comments. Unfortunately, my critique group disbanded. I miss them.

    Reply
  2. Mar Preston

    I don’t miss my critique group meetings for anything, Mark. That’s sound advice. Something that is glaringly obvious to you may not be to anyone else. It can be humbling.

    Reply
  3. Michael A.Black

    Really sound advice, Mark. Thanks. I remember the short-lived revival of Black Mask and have several of them. I’ll have to look for your first story as well as check out your new one. Good luck.

    Reply
  4. Thonie Hevron

    Fascinating interview! Thanks for letting us get to know you.

    Reply

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L.J. Sellers and Teresa Burrell Discuss“No Consent,” a Universal Issue

L.J. Sellers and Teresa Burrell met at a mystery/thriller convention long ago and have remained great friends. Combined, they have 41 highly-rated novels with 15 International Readers Favorite Awards, a UP Award, and a San Diego Best Mystery Award.

L.J. writes the Detective Jackson mysteries, the Agent Dallas thrillers, and the made-for-TV Extractor suspense stories. Teresa has authored twelve books in The Advocate series and three in her spin-off Tuper series. In addition, she’s known for her work as a legal advocate for children.

Teresa and I both feel strongly about addressing social issues in our novels. In The Advocate series, Teresa focuses on children’s traumas, and in my Detective Jackson series, I highlight people who are marginalized, including the abuse of those caught up in our legal system. So a news story about a corrupt prosecutor caught my attention. That injustice concerned the rights of people accused of a crime and the DA’s planting of informants in jail cells to ensure convictions—a legal no-consent issue that affected mostly men.

But the social issue of no-consent, as it applies to women, is always simmering in the back of our female minds. The me-too movement was personal for both of us. In a broader way, it morphed into a person’s right to say “no”—regardless of circumstances. Such as the way a woman dresses, the provocative subjects she might write about, or how she makes a living, even if it includes something sexual.

As we developed our plot, we needed one of our main characters, a female district attorney, to be engaged in a compelling trial. About that same time, the social media site OnlyFans came to my attention. The platform—and the women who make a living there—intrigued us so much we knew we had to write about them. Then Teresa, a defense attorney, came up with a brilliant crime/trial that fit into our story and theme perfectly.

We’d love to share more details, but we don’t want to spoil the surprises. But again, the issue was lack of consent. In the end, we crafted synergistic themes for our characters, Conner & Hitch, and plotted a story that brings it all together. In short: Just because a man has been accused of a crime doesn’t mean his legal rights can be violated. And just because a woman posts sexy videos doesn’t mean it’s okay to sexually assault her.

But does the legal system actually protect either person? That depends on the prosecutors, judges, and juries involved. And humans are flawed, so the system often fails. For writers, the joy of crime fiction is the opportunity to create our own endings and have justice be served. As readers, it helps us feel a little better about the world.

I don’t want to give away more—because we plotted some shocking twists—but readers call the novel  “scintillating,” “brilliant,” and “totally engaging.” Here’s a tagline that gives a hint about our characters: A stressed-out prosecutor needs help from a charming ex-con. What can possibly go wrong?

Readers are already asking what’s next, so we’re plotting a second adventure for Conner & Hitch. We hope you’ll check out NO CONSENT and find the story as intriguing and emotionally engaging as we did.

Learn more about L.J. and Teresa at:

http://ljsellers.com

http://teresaburrell.com

11 Comments

  1. Lynn

    I’m so glad to hear you include social issues in your books and delve into the complexities of the issues through the plot and characters. I’m looking forward to reading your novels.

    Reply
    • L.J. Sellers

      Thanks! We love new readers! L.J.

      Reply
  2. Vicki Batman

    Wonderful to learn more about you! Great interview. vb

    Reply
    • Teresa Burrell

      Thanks, Vicki. It’s fun to be here.

      Teresa

      Reply
  3. Teresa Burrell

    Thanks, George. I hope you’re having a good time!

    Reply
  4. George Cramer

    I folks,

    I’m attending the 20Books-Las Vegas Conference in Las Vegas this week. So, if like Val, your comments are slow to post, it’s because I’m not at my laptop most of the day.

    Aren’t L.J. and Teresa awesome? I’m so glad to have a chance to read their post live.

    Take Care & Stay Safe

    George

    Reply
  5. Michael A. Black

    Bless you for bringing these important issues to people’s attention through your books, and for looking out for the welfare of children. Good luck.

    Reply
    • Teresa Burrell

      Thank you, Michael. We both feel it’s important to shed light on social issues through our writing.

      Reply
  6. Teresa Burrell

    Hi Everyone,

    We’ll be around today, checking in, so if you have any questions, feel free to ask.

    Teresa & L.J.

    Reply
    • Val

      I love the way social issues are written about without being preachy. Fiction is the perfect vehicle for delivering truth. And I agree that satisfying endings give us a boost in an otherwise rarely ‘fair’ world. Particularly in our justice system. Looking forward to Book 2 in the series.

      Reply

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BILL RAPP – Cold War, Berlin Wall, Espionage

The title of my latest book is Berlin Walls, the fourth book in the Cold War Thriller series from Coffeetown Press. In Berlin Walls, CIA officer Karl Baier returns to Berlin to exfiltrate a KGB defector just as the Wall is going up. The world of Cold War espionage is about to change forever. As if that wasn’t difficult enough, Baier’s German-born wife asks him to help get her family out of East Germany at the same time.

Karl Baier is the protagonist in each of the Cold War spy stories in this series, which begins in the months immediately after the end of World War II in the ruins of Berlin. His adventures then take him to Vienna on the eve of the signing of the State Treaty ending the occupation of Austria in 1955 (The Hapsburg Variation) and Budapest during the Hungarian revolt and Soviet invasion in 1956 (The Budapest Escape).

I was initially attracted to mysteries as a graduate student working on my Ph.D. in European History. When I needed a break from all those history books, I took to reading mysteries and fell in love with the novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. Throughout my 35 years working for the CIA, I harbored the dream of writing my own stories and finally broke through with one set against the fall of the Berlin Wall, which I experienced during my assignment in the city between 1989 and 1991. I followed that with a three-book private detective series set outside Chicago, where I grew up. Later, my memories of the many times I had visited and lived in Berlin and Europe brought me to the first spy thriller, Tears of Innocence, and the Cold War series that followed. I draw on my years of experience as an analyst, diplomat, and senior executive at the Agency and my background in European—and especially German—history for these novels, a writing experience that allows me to blend two of my greatest passions: history and intelligence.

I am definitely a pantser. I usually start with little more than a general idea and an opening scene, and then I find that my characters tend to take over the story. I have to confess that I find working on an outline a bit daunting and, frankly, too much work. I really have only a vague idea of where the storyline will go eventually. But I also find that to be a much more enjoyable creative process. And things rarely unfold as I had initially thought they would.

I would not say that the characters disappoint, but they often do not act as I thought they would—or should. Raymond Chandler never had his great hero, Philip Marlowe, become romantically involved with anyone he met while working on a case because he feared it would compromise his integrity, something that made Marlowe good enough for anyone’s world and the best man for his own (to paraphrase the master). And yet, in the third book of my P.I. series, the protagonist, Bill Habermann, does just that and ends up with the woman at the end of the book. I had to sit back and ask myself how the hell that happened. In the current Cold War manuscript I’m working on, Karl Baier has an affair with a Turkish woman. However, in the real world, an intelligence officer wants to avoid putting himself in such a vulnerable and compromising situation. And Baier is happily married! But in the real world, people do not always act rationally and responsibly. No one is perfect. But it is also the author’s obligation to ensure that there are consequences when something like this happens.

The best book I have ever read? That is perhaps the toughest question on this list. And I am going to cheat by breaking that down into separate time frames. It’s how I respond to the question of the great American novel because each book reflects a different stage of our country and its culture and how those have evolved. I begin with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, then move onto Henry James’s The American and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. From there, I select Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Granted, there are no spy novels on this list. Still, I can always say that I find the novels of Charles McCarry, especially The Last Supper and Secret Lovers, as the finest in that genre.

My advice to anyone starting out in this field, or thinking of becoming a writer, is to read and then read some more and more again. I find that critically important in developing your own voice because you will find writers who speak to you more so than others, often because of how they have come to learn their craft and how to express themselves. You have to be careful not to become too imitative (my initial attempts at writing detective fiction read like the work of a Raymond Chandler-wannabe). Still, it will really help in finding your own voice, one that you are happy to put on the page and tell your story.

 

12 Comments

  1. Bill Rapp

    Thanks, Joseph. See you in July. We should have even more to talk about.

    Reply
  2. Bill Rapp

    Robert, I hope these books in the series mean something special to you.

    Reply
  3. Bill Rapp

    Thanks, John. I enjoyed meeting and talking with you in Las Vegas. I’ve got M.P. on my reading table and will finish it before the next PSWA conference. See you there.

    Reply
  4. Joseph Bryce HAGGERTY Sr

    Bill we met at the PSWA conference. I knew from our first conversation that you had some interesting experiences and I envied your travels as well as your time with the agency. I definitely will be buying some of your books and look forward to seeing you at the next conference.

    Reply
  5. Thonie Hevron

    I just finished Bill’s first novel, Tears of Innocence and loved it. I’m looking forward to Karl’s adventures in the second book. A fun interview, Bill and George. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Bill Rapp

      Thanks so much, Thonie, for your kind words. I’m really glad you enjoyed Tears of Innocence. I just hope you find the others in the series as interesting and worthwhile.

      It was great meeting you in July, and I hope to see you at next year’s PSWA conference.

      Reply
  6. John Schembra

    Good to meet you, BIll. Sounds like you led a very interesting life. Good luck with your newest book. I definitely will be checing out your stories!

    Reply
  7. Michael A. Black

    Bill Rapp is the real deal. His writing has a sophisticated edge to it and I strongly recommend his work. His advice to prospective writers to read, read, read, is right, right, right. Good luck with your new one, Bill.

    Reply
    • Bill Rapp

      Thanks, Mike. I’m about to pick up the The Heist and really looking forward to it.

      Reply
  8. Madeline Gornell

    Great to meet you, Bill, and very much agree–read, read, read, then find your own voice. Continued success! (I was also born and bred in Chicago! Though haven’t been back there for many many years. Different times way back then in the dark ages(smile)).

    Reply
    • Bill Rapp

      Madeline,
      Great to hear from a like-minded colleague–and Chicagoland native! I’ve been fortunate to return to my old haunts in Naperville and the Fox River Valley at least once a year for decades now (except when I’ve been overseas, of course). You should get back there. it’s changed, but then so much remains the same. I get inspired every time I return.

      Reply
  9. Robert Coburn

    I was an United States Army occupation soldier with the 6th Infantry Regiment in Berlin from March 1955 to August 1957. This time included the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

    Reply

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LOIS WINSTON – On Using Real-life Settings

USA Today and Amazon bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick-lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and nonfiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Kirkus Reviews dubbed her critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” In addition, Lois is a former literary agent and an award-winning craft and needlework designer who often draws much of her source material for both her characters and plots from her experiences in the crafts industry.

Shortly before Covid hit and the world closed, my husband and I attended a wedding that was held at a former private estate in New Jersey. Sitting on acres of prime real estate in one of the priciest counties in the United States, the estate with its manor house claims to be “the most exclusive, private and sought-after venue for weddings, private social events and corporate meetings in the country.”

The land on which it sits was purchased in 1912 by renowned New York City industrialist Charles Walter Nichols. He hired Augustus N. Allen, one of the premier architects of the day, to create a home reminiscent of the Norman architecture of Northern France and Southern England. The landscape architect Augustus E. Furlong (I wonder how common Augustus was as a name back then, given the coincidence!) was hired to transform the grounds into a combination of formal gardens and woodlands featuring ponds, streams, and meandering footpaths.

In 1994 the estate was purchased, updated, and opened as a conference and event center. It’s also become a much sought-after filming location for major motion pictures and television shows, as well as for fashion photoshoots.

I’ve found that too often, wedding venues are over-the-top gaudy with far too much faux gold, crystal, and marble for my taste. This estate was spectacular in its understated elegance. I could easily envision the family who called it home at one time. I certainly wouldn’t mind living there—if I had a few hundred million dollars!

For the tenth book in my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series, I had decided to have Anastasia present a series of needlework workshops at a conference for an organization of retired women. But I didn’t want the conference held in a hotel. I wanted a more secluded, private setting for the plot I had in mind. The estate where I’d attended that wedding was the perfect location.

A book’s setting should play an integral part in the story. There should be a reason why the author chooses to set her story in a particular town or place. Sometimes authors make up locations. Other times they set their stories in real settings. And sometimes they fictionalize real locales, which is what I chose to do for Stitch, Bake, Die!.

For me, basing my settings on actual locations enables me to give my readers a better sense of where the scenes are taking place. For this book, I could close my eyes and see all the details of the estate where my story was unfolding as I wrote it because I’ve been there. I’ve wandered the many rooms of the manor house and walked the grounds. I hope that the picture I’ve painted with my words enables my readers to see in their minds what I saw with my own eyes.

You’ll notice, though, that in this article, I haven’t named the estate where the wedding took place. In the book, I’ve deliberately given the location a fictitious name. After all, this is a mystery series, and there’s murder afoot!

Have you ever read a book that took place in a fictional setting but were convinced it was actually a place you knew?

Stitch, Bake, Die!  – An Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery, Book 10

With massive debt, a communist mother-in-law, a Shakespeare-quoting parrot, and a photojournalist boyfriend who may or may not be a spy, crafts editor Anastasia Pollack already juggles too much in her life. So she’s not thrilled when her magazine volunteers her to present workshops and judge a needlework contest at the inaugural conference of the New Jersey chapter of the Stitch and Bake Society, a national organization of retired professional women. At least her best friend and cooking editor Cloris McWerther has also been roped into similar duties for the culinary side of the 3-day event taking place on the grounds of the exclusive Beckwith Chateau Country Club.

The sweet little old ladies Anastasia is expecting to meet are definitely old, and some of them are little, but all are anything but sweet. She’s stepped into a vipers’ den that starts with bribery and ends with murder. When an ice storm forces Anastasia and Cloris to spend the night at the Chateau, Anastasia discovers evidence of insurance scams, medical fraud, an opioid ring, long-buried family secrets, and a bevy of suspects.

Can she piece together the various clues before she becomes the killer’s next target?

Crafting tips included.

Links to buy books and where to visit Lois:

Paperback https://amzn.to/2YiodcR
Kindle https://amzn.to/3ylMivw
Apple Books https://books.apple.com/us/book/stitch-bake-die/id1582066729
Kobo https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/stitch-bake-die
Nook https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/stitch-bake-die-lois-winston/1140036766;jsessionid=25A7F9659AD9C525D5EAB0BECCEA6D09.prodny_store02-atgap06?ean=2940162610267

Website: www.loiswinston.com
Newsletter sign-up: https://app.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/z1z1u5
Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog: www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com
Pinterest: www.pinterest.com/anasleuth
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Anasleuth
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/722763.Lois_Winston
Bookbub: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/lois-winston

 

12 Comments

  1. Patricia J. Boyle

    Lois,

    I like your differentiation of real, fictional, and fictionalized locations. I generally create settings from my imagination, but when I base them on a real place, it makes it easier to provide details that bring the setting to life. I once read a novel in which many roads and towns had names of real locations, but not the city where the action took place. I asked the author if I was correct in my guess about the fictionalized place. I was. I knew something of that city, and he did a good job of fictionalizing it. Thanks for the informative and interesting column!

    Reply
  2. George Cramer

    Lois, reading guest posts like yours, and those of all our visitors, is a pleasure. Not to mention all that I’ve learned about our craft from our brother & sister authors.

    I think this is the first time I’ve posted a comment. 🙂

    Reply
    • Lois Winston

      Wow, George! I’m going to try very hard not to let that go to my head!

      Reply
  3. Donnell Ann Bell

    An amazing first person author. I have learned so much from Lois Winston. Her protagonist’s zany family is so much fun to read!

    Reply
    • Lois Winston

      Donnell, I’m blushing! Thanks so much.

      Reply
  4. Michael A. Black

    I’ve always been a fan of the type of mystery that takes place in an isolated estate such as this. It sounds like you’re the worthy successor to Agatha Christie. Good luck.

    Reply
    • Lois Winston

      Hi praise, Michael! Thanks so much!

      Reply
  5. Kathlee

    Lois is on my reading list too!

    Reply
    • Lois Winston

      Thanks, Kathleen! So glad you’re enjoying the series.

      Reply
  6. Lois Winston

    Marilyn, you’re such a sweetheart for saying that! Thanks for stopping by.

    Reply
  7. Marilyn Meredith

    I’ve been following Lois Winston for a long time now. Her books are good, and her writing insights always great.

    Reply
  8. Lois Winston

    George, thanks so much for hosting me today on your blog.

    Reply

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